Is the British ‘war film’ dead, and if so, should it be resurrected? Kajaki, an indie British war film, couldn’t get funding via the usual industry routes, and its makers have turned to crowdfunding in order to get the film made. As part of that, Tom Williams penned an article for The Daily Mail decrying the lack of funding for such films. As part of that piece, he points out that:
Such films [The Dam Busters, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Cockleshell Heroes, The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare or The Guns Of Navarone], mostly made in the Fifties and Sixties, brilliantly showcase the nobility, the camaraderie, the black humour, and the raw courage often displayed by the British Armed Forces in the most perilous of situations.
But then look at that list again. They’re all films set in World War II and were made nearly half a century ago. Have our forces stopped fighting wars since then? Of course not. So why aren’t the stories being told?
Part of the problem is British military history since 1945. Unfortunately, Her Majesty’s Government hasn’t given us a war against a clear-cut ‘evil empire’ since World War 2. Apart from the Korean War and the Falklands, the cold war era is thin pickings for those wishing to depict an implacable evil foe on par with the Nazis, unless you’re the type of person who refers to Rhodesia in the present tense. While I’m sure many, many acts of individual or group heroism occurred in our withdrawal from empire, fighting rearguard actions against Communist or nationalist guerrillas doesn’t have quite the same jingoistic tone as defending the free world against the Third Reich. Nor does teaming up with the French to embarrass ourselves over Suez. Northern Ireland will always be a touchy subject, but even for those who supported the military presence there, it’s quite difficult to fashion that heroic narrative required of British war films for a conflict that no-one has really come to terms with, yet. I’m sure that a major effort to do so would do wonders for the peace process, too. The great British war films that we use to celebrate WW2 every Christmas feature that national significance as an integral part of the genre. Without it, they wouldn’t work as films.
Kajaki appears to consciously reject that national significance, in its rejection of the context of British involvement in Helmand. It’s about ‘the boys’ and ‘our heroes’ because we can’t celebrate the War in Afghanistan as a country in the same way that we can collectively drink cheap beer cheer on Clint Eastwood offing the Gestapo. It is an attempt to resurrect the ‘British war film’ as a celebration of ‘heroes’ independent of their overarching purpose. In doing so it taps into the national mood to celebrate ‘our heroes’ which gives us a collective escape route from considering who is responsible for putting ‘our heroes’ in harm’s way in the first place. I don’t think all soldiers are heroes, but I do think that they should be respected for their role in society, and part of that respect involves some form of responsibility for their deployment. While Kajaki might recognise the individual courage of troops, such a film hurts them as a profession because it contributes to the atmosphere in which the country will accept them being sent abroad to be maimed and killed, while distancing itself from any responsibility for those inevitable outcomes of war and armed conflict. It is somehow acceptable to abnegate such responsibility for the young men and women sent to hostile places, so long as we properly recognise them as heroes while doing so. In this regard it is somewhat apt that Kajaki is selling itself as a charitable endeavour to support the charities that provide the services for soldiers that the country as a whole should be providing.
Stripping ‘the politics’ from what occurred at the Kajaki dam makes it easier to tell a story about individual courage, but harder to tell a story about war. Without ‘the politics’, war becomes meaningless and absurd and most war films would depict patently absurd behaviour. In essence, is the point that modern war films like Three Kings and Jarhead were making. The prima facie problem with telling a story like Kajaki is that it appears to be a disaster movie that wants to be a war film. In a disaster film there is some uncaring natural event that tests the protagonists. In a war film, there’s an evil or an opponent who must be vanquished, usually with guns, grit and snappy one-liners. I don’t know how the film makers intend to turn an unthinking minefield into such an opponent. For all its flaws, The Hurt Locker made improvised explosive devices ‘work’ as a symbol of malign intent. I don’t know how one turns the 25 year old lethal remnants of the Soviet war in Afghanistan into such an opponent. At the end of the day, Great British War Films had evil empires, dastardly enemies and heroic deeds. Kajaki appears to have one of the three, in order to tell a story which reiterates the courage of individual British soldiers. Whatever conclusions one might draw from post-WW2 British military history, such courage, I think, was never in question.